TWN Info Service on Trade and WTO Issues (July08/10)
11 July 2008
Third World Network

Trade: Many unanswered questions on eve of new Chairs' texts
Published in SUNS #6514 dated 10 July 2008

Geneva, 9 July (Martin Khor) -- In preparation for the mini-Ministerial starting 21 July, container-like cabins have in the last couple of days been installed near the entrance of the grounds of the WTO building. They are presumably meant for the purposes of accreditation of participants and security checks.

Inside the building, a medium-sized room, known as Room E (famous for the holding of small-group agriculture meetings the past two years), has been renovated to make it suitable for a meeting of Ministers.

Logistical preparations for the informal Ministerial are well under way. It is supposed that some 30 delegations are invited, but no one is sure, as the number and the names of delegations invited are not known, nor will they be officially announced, if the practice in previous such mini-Ministerials is followed.

On Monday and Tuesday, the final open-ended meetings on agriculture and non-agriculture market access (NAMA) were held, before the new revised drafts are issued.

These new papers are now expected out on Thursday or perhaps Friday. What happens after that is uncertain. Some delegations want the chance for another meeting or series of meetings within each of the groups (i. e. agriculture and NAMA).

But the papers could also instead trigger the immediate start of a new phase - the so-called "horizontal process" in which both agriculture and NAMA will be discussed together, and possibly other issues as well (services, rules, TRIPS), so that there can be an overview and a cross-comparison of the issues and possible "trade-offs" among them.

In the agriculture and NAMA group process, the leaders are the Chairs - Ambassador Crawford Falconer (New Zealand) and Ambassador Don Stephenson (Canada) respectively. Even Falconer said to journalists that he is uncertain what will happen once his paper comes out, as it is unclear how the TNC Chair wants to proceed.

When the horizontal process begins, the convenor and Chair will be WTO Director-General Pascal Lamy, in his capacity as TNC (Trade Negotiations Committee) Chair.

He has in any case been chairing regular "Green Room" meetings. In recent months, these meetings discussed the scope of issues to be covered in the mini-Ministerial and issues of process. When the horizontal process begins, the Green Room will probably be kept, but also then switch to issues of substance.

Lamy is also expected to chair the mini-Ministerial. This is a break from the previous major mini-Ministerial held in July 2004, which was chaired by the General Council Chair, Ambassador Shotaro Oshima of Japan, with Dr. Supachai Panitchpakdi (the then DG and TNC Chair) in attendance.

Since taking over as DG and TNC Chair in 2005, Lamy has moved himself and the positions he holds to the centre stage of negotiations, with the Chairs of the General Council only playing peripheral roles.

The TNC meetings and their informal sessions (chaired by Lamy) have become the main overall negotiating fora, whereas in the past, the informal sessions used to be known as HODs (heads of delegation meeting) and the General Council meetings (chaired by the General Council Chair) used to be more important.

General Council Chairs such as Ambassador Ali Mchumo of Tanzania (before the Seattle Ministerial of 1999) and Ambassador Carlos Perez del Castillo of Uruguay
(before and after the Cancun Ministerial of 2003) headed the HOD meetings, which were informal sessions of the General Council. After Lamy took over as Director-General, the HOD meetings were somehow converted into "informal TNC meetings" and chaired by Lamy.

Thus, the TNC has taken over from the General Council as the locus of negotiations, and Lamy has replaced the General Council Chair as the main mover of negotiations, deciding on whether and when to convene the key meetings, including the mini-Ministerial.

The mini-Ministerial as a WTO-sanctioned forum is also a relatively new animal. Previously, a few mini-Ministerials were organized by individual countries and held in cities such as Singapore, Lausanne or Davos. Only Ministers of selected countries (some 20 or 25) were invited by the host government.

The overall membership of the WTO barely tolerated such meetings, and only took note of the events or the outcomes, because most of them were not invited and moreover these meetings did not have the mandate of the membership.

The first mini-Ministerial held inside the WTO itself was in July 2004, which produced the "July package." The next mini-Ministerial was in July 2006, convened by Lamy, which ended even before it really started, as the meeting of the G6 Ministers that preceded it ended in failure, and there was no political basis for having a mini-Ministerial even though some 20 to 30 Ministers had turned up. The Doha negotiations were then suspended for many months until early 2007 when they slowly resumed again.

The mini-Ministerial beginning 21 July is often misleadingly termed a "Ministerial", when in fact, only 20 to 30 Ministers are believed to be invited to attend, and it is not clear who they are and on what basis they are selected. Even the TNC and General Council are not given the list of Ministers, and many delegates have been asking one another whether their country has been invited.

An article in the International Herald Tribune on 4 July by Lamy, titled "The moment of truth", takes the form of "a memorandum to the world's trade ministers". In it, Lamy says that it is "prudent to update you on our Doha Round negotiations in advance of your meeting later this month in Geneva" and signs off: "I look forward to seeing you in Geneva."

This may give the impression that the meeting starting 21 July is the official Ministerial meeting of the WTO, to which all governments are invited and which is mandated to be held once every two years. But it is not.

The last official Ministerial was in Hong Kong in December 2005. The next meeting was supposed to be held by December 2007, but it was not. And so far, no meeting for 2008 has been planned.

The July 2008 meeting is only an "informal mini-Ministerial", and only a few Ministers are called to come, and the list of invitees is secret, or at least not known to almost anyone in the WTO diplomatic community. It is thus misleading to tell "the world's trade ministers" that they will be welcomed soon in Geneva.

In fact, many WTO diplomats are very worried that they will not be privy to the proceedings of the mini-Ministerial nor to the "horizontal process" meetings preceding it, since the majority of WTO members will not be invited to the mini-Ministerial or the horizontal process (to which senior officials of only selected countries, presumably the same countries as those invited to the mini-Ministerial, will be invited).

They are even more concerned that if the mini-Ministerial produces an outcome, then they will be given only a few hours to look at the document before an official meeting of the General Council is convened to endorse the results of the mini-Ministerial and thus to "multilateralise" and legitimise the outcome produced by a few members.

This is what happened in the July 2004 process. After the mini-Ministerial concluded, only hours elapsed before a General Council meeting was convened late at night to endorse the document, known then as the July package, and now as the July 2004 framework agreement (although by the time the decision was taken, it was past midnight and had become 1 August 2004).

This time around, the stakes are higher because the full modalities of agriculture and NAMA are being decided on, not just a skeleton framework as in July 2004, and also other subjects like TRIPS may also be included (if the wishes of some countries like India are taken into account).

Moreover, the substance this time has become much more voluminous and technically complex. Many or most people seeing the text that comes out at the end of the mini-Ministerial will not be able to understand several parts of it in a few hours or even a few days, since they will be highly technical.

Few will be able to understand the implications of several of the portions, including implications for their countries and economies.

Thus, the decision to go ahead with the mini-Ministerial, and to conclude it with the deadline uppermost in mind, is fraught with many questions. This may be the reason why many developing countries and their groupings have called for the whole July process to be driven by substance rather than by deadlines.

The G33, for example, at the TNC meeting on 27 June said that the mini-Ministerial process should "always be driven by substance and members and not by artificial deadlines based on political considerations."

Whether this sound principle will be adhered to in the days ahead remains to be seen. The rush towards the horizontal process and the mini-Ministerial will begin in earnest once the new agriculture and NAMA texts are released. +